Imagining Appalachia

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’d like to do with my life. More specifically, what I would do if I could do anything. You know, the whole "if you won the lottery, what would you do?" line of thinking. It's hard for me to think about grand ideas or what-ifs like that because I'm too much of a realist, a more practical man. Nonetheless, I dream and I've been known to stay stuck on a dream or two. This has left me with more questions than answers, but the answers I’ve come up with have have been pretty eye-opening.

In short, I want to start a documentary arts center in Williamson, West Virginia. I see a space that combines the likes of Duke's Center for Documentary Studies continuing education curriculum, Whitesburg, Kentucky's Appalshop offerings, and the recently launched interactive documentary, Hollow, directed by Elaine McMillion.

I even know the building I want to use.

I spend a good deal of time in towns like Williamson, Welch, and Bluefield. These towns have incredibly rich histories and you'll find no shortage of available spaces, often historic buildings, that would be the perfect location for something like this.

I envision a space where high school kids can come to learn about photography, filmmaking, or recording audio. I think about members of the community gathering to have their old family photographs scanned and archived. I hear the stories shared from longstanding members of long forgotten places, anxious to tell their stories, to be heard, to not be forgotten. I see folks interested in making pictures, young and old alike, gathered for workshops, for camera walks, learning and growing together.

I said a while back in a radio interview that the people of Appalachia have had a lot taken from them and that I don't just want to be another taker in a long line of takers. I'd like to give something back to the place that has given me so much, that's molded me into who I am. There are so many stories and records that should be recorded and shared, not just in Appalachia, but everywhere. I'm not naive enough to think that I could help everywhere, but I know that my little corner of the world, Mingo County, West Virginia, I could help there. I know that's a place where I can give back.

So, I don't even know who to make this dream a reality, but I'd imagine it going something like this. It's starts with this idea and it grows from there. We'd hold community interest meetings to gauge how folk felt about something like this and how they'd like to see a space and program like this utilized. I’d talk to someone who talks to someone else who knows someone that has a space they'd be willing to offer for a center like this to exist. Grants would be written, connections made, resources made available, and things would begin to take shape. We'd start with a couple of computers, external hard drives, a scanner, and some basic camera equipment.

Maybe it starts with me offering small weekend workshops in Williamson, making the drive up from Raleigh that I’m so familiar with, collaborating with folks and sharing their work in community exhibits. Maybe it starts in a coffee shop.

One of the things I most appreciate about Hollow is the notion that members of the community get to tell their own stories and the story of their place. What a novel concept, right? I mean, who ever thought of "allowing" a group of people to rewrite the narrative about their own place? I'm being sarcastic, of course. Empowering people to tell their own story, enabling them through the use of tools to amplify their voice, and listening. Yes, listening. I think there's a real opportunity to apply the Hollow model throughout Appalachia.

Regarding work made in Appalachia, there's often very little listening and very little community organizing going on and it's been rare that any of it was long-term. Historically, there have been outsiders who drop in only to make pictures of what they wanted to see, pictures that ultimately defined Appalachia to the rest of America: hungry children, broken down cars and shacks, and extreme poverty. Like the coal and timber harvested from the region, pictures were takenoften out of context, and used for someone else's benefit and profit. What does it say to a culture when time and time again they are taken advantage of?

What is their worth?

What is the value of their community?

Who will hear their voice and preserve their stories?

A big influence for my thinking about this process is Huey Perry’s 1972 book They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle. Perry, a high school teacher in Mingo County during the early years of the War on Poverty, was hired to be the executive director of the newly created Economic Opportunity Commission in 1965. The book offers an amazing account of politics and community organizing in southern West Virginia.

A couple of passages stand out:

Here, Perry talks about the importance of community organizing before writing proposals for grant money from the Office of Economic Opportunity. (It’s important to note that neighboring McDowell County had already submitted an application for a million dollar federal grant before the President had signed the bill or appointed Sargent Shriver to head the OEO, so Mingo County officials were pushing Perry to get a proposal submitted.)

“A community action group would consist of low income citizens organized together to identify their problems and work toward possible solutions. I feel it necessary that we take our time and build an organization that involves the poor in the decisions as to what types of programs they want, rather than to sit down and write up what we think they want. If we do it in the latter way, we will be no different from the welfare department or any other old-line agency that imposes its ideas upon the people.”

Perry goes on:

“If we can change the conditions in Mingo County, perhaps the whole state of West Virginia can be changed. We should work to make this a model for the rest of Appalachia to follow. You know, we are not that much different from eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia.”

I also love this quote from Guy and Candie Carawan’s 1975 book, Voices From the Mountains, by Mike Clark:

“For those of us who are from Appalachia, who love it, and who want to remain, these people offer valuable insights and feelings about what it means to be a mountaineer in a modern technological society. And for the reader who may not live in Appalachia, there is much to be learned here from present attempts within the mountains to build a more democratic society. Welcome to the developing Free State of Appalachia.”

You may say I'm a dreamer...

Looking at Appalachia | Hunter Barnes

I can thank Instagram and cell phone photography for leading me to the beautiful analog work of Hunter Barnes. I saw an image of Barnes' book, A Testimony of Serpent Handling, in someone's feed, Googled the photographer, and landed smack dab in the middle of this intimate and quiet work. I reached out to Barnes and asked if he'd be interested in collaborating on something for Looking at Appalachia and he agreed.

Barnes' project statement echoes many of the thoughts and emotions I've been unable to express in my own writing. Coupled with the photographs, I sensed an honesty that's hard to prop up for any length of time without being authentic. My hour-long conversation with him reinforced my initial sentiment; he's genuine.

From the project statement: "Where there is love and unity there is power. Feeling this is what has drawn me to document this in true belief. Within their church a clear path knowing ultimate freedom and victory over all things. Light felt so pure that shines beyond all. At a pivotal point in a new time proclaiming the word that has not changed. As to live what they know is undoubtedly right and not to tempt in disbelief. An old way for so many is passing, as lived strong for those who choose this way. Walking all verses and chapters of the King James Version to save a soul and enter the pearly gates. In these West Virginia mountains live and breathe the anointing, within the people who do not stray. Children of God who rise above in the ways of old. A family of faith who so graciously invited me in. Said to me of handling serpents, like all true love, the journey is one better felt than told."

A little over two years ago, Barnes ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his book about the serpent-handling churches and faith community around Jolo, West Virginia. Barnes speaks fondly of his time in McDowell County, referring to the work as a family album, something he made with them. Pastor Mack "Randy" Wolford and Pastor Harvey Payne of the Jolo Church and his extended family set Barnes up with a camper, going so far as running a water hose and extension cords to it to make him more comfortable during his stay. (Wolford passed away from a rattlesnake bite in May 2012.)

What we see in these photographs, in these moments, is access to intimacy. Barnes noted that the only real thing Wolford expected in return was accuracy. He wanted to spread the word about his faith, but he wanted it done accurately. By all accounts, Barnes has done just that. As a native West Virginian, I'm often skeptical of anyone - either insider or outsider - who wants to photograph this practice. I even question my own motivations. What can I show that hasn't already been shown? I've yet to work that out in my practice, but Barnes has managed to celebrate this act of faith and obedience in a manner that is quiet, honest, and intensely beautiful.

All photographs © Hunter Barnes.

Looking at Appalachia | Les Stone

lesstone23 Les Stone is a photographer based in Claryville, New York who has worked extensively in the coalfields of Appalachia as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Kosovo, Liberia, Cambodia, Panama, and Haiti. His images are powerful not only because they bring to our attention important and often overlooked people and events, but because they do so in a visually arresting way. You can see more of his work here.

Les and I got in touch via Facebook, which eventually led to a phone call. It was clear to me from the outset that he was deeply moved by what he saw in Appalachia. The outrage in his voice about miners suffering from black lung disease, his primary focus in West Virginia, was palpable. The passion I heard on the phone is easy to see in his photographs. I asked Les to write an essay to accompany some of his work from Appalachia.

Deep in the Heart of Appalachia

McDowell County, West Virginia is one of the poorest and most remote counties in the United States. Because of coal mining, Welch, had at one time the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States. When I drive down these two lane mountain roads, it feels like another world, far away, perhaps another country, certainly not the wealthiest country on the face of the planet, the USA. For those of you who have never been here, it is truly a special experience and forget all the stupid hillbilly jokes; there are real and great people here with real problems and we are all part of each other’s lives.


Health Care in Appalachia.



Thousands of immigrants from Europe came to find work in the coalfields of Appalachia, to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky to name a few. Welch, the county seat of McDowell, is scarcely a shadow of it's former self, but still today more coal is taken out of this area than any time in its history. Mechanization and non-union mining has caused this area has become almost destitute, not to mention that many of these companies have treated the people here with ethical disdain and criminal and moral neglect since the beginning of mining here. Domestic wars have been fought here and hundreds, even thousands, have died in mining accidents and during strikes. Labor history was made here in Appalachia that affects all Americans today.

Black lung, heart disease, diabetes, and drug abuse are endemic in Appalachia. Black lung disease is on the rise among all the miners. Many of formerly wealthy towns in the area are now little more than ghost towns and most of the coal camp towns have fallen into complete poverty. Yet, still to this day the only jobs that pay more than minimum wage are the most dangerous jobs in the world, coal mining. These few jobs are greatly coveted and coal mining, down through the generations, is as so many people have told me again and again, “in our blood.” I’ve met sons who have left the area, gone to college, got an education and come back to mine coal. Mining is not only in the blood, it still pays more than any other job they could potentially get anywhere else. Generations of families have survived and prospered from coal mining.

Health Care in Appalachia.


Coal mining in West Virginia


Few people here have health insurance and or easy access to clinics. Life in many parts of Appalachia almost appears to me to be at third world levels of poverty. It's incredibly difficult, yet Appalachian people are some of the proudest, kindest people I’ve ever met.

In the context of a world economy from which we are all suffering, some of our fellow countryman have had it a lot worse for a long time and they should not be forgotten. In fact, they need to be celebrated as heroes; they're the reason the lights are still on. I don't say that to celebrate coal. We need to find less polluting alternatives and quickly, but as in all decisions involving policy you can't forget that people's lives are deeply affected and directly impacted by those decisions.

Coal Mining.

Coal mining in West Virginia

Health Care in Appalachia.


Many of these men dying of black lung disease live out the remainder of their lives in pain and heartbreak with little faith left in either the coal companies or the government that has neglected them.  Their eyes have been wide open their whole lives. They know what’s possibly in store for them and they know they’re sacrificing their health for family and they do it proudly. Many are bitter, and rightfully so, about how they are treated after no longer being able to work long hours at hard labor in terrible conditions. Most of us wouldn't work underground no matter what the pay is.

All of these people have so many stories, so profound that I can say that I am greatly challenged as a photographer and storyteller. I can only scratch the surface of their lives and every time I plan a trip back, I make the calls and find out another person has died since I was last with them. I’ve never been so stirred by my work.

Health Care in Appalachia.




I did not grow up in Appalachia. My experiences are completely different and I don’t know what difference I can make for me or anyone and maybe that’s the point. I feel better personally meeting and knowing these incredible people and I think they feel the same. For me, photography is a form of immortality, always living when everyone is gone.

Les Stone April 2013


All photographs and essay “Deep in the Heart of Appalachia” © Les Stone.